A chat in Bangkok about an ‘unpleasant experience’ with Trump

opinion December 07, 2017 01:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, has been actively involved in negotiating for the launch of the Paris Agreement. When Donald Trump became president, he announced that he was pulling the United States out of the pact. 



Polman, who also chairs the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, decided to visit the White House to try to convince Trump to stay in. He failed. But he won’t give up.

Late last month in Bangkok I spoke with the Unilever boss about his “unpleasant experience” with President Trump:

When I was told that you were coming to Thailand and would do an interview, I immediately thought about you and Donald Trump.

No resemblance, I hope.

Two years ago we met in Bangkok when you were on your way to Paris as part of the private-sector push for the climate agreement. But then Trump became president and said he was pulling out of the Paris Agreement. That got me confused. You had told me the Paris agreement was good. And Trump now says it’s bad. So who’s right and who’s wrong?

So, the question for you is: Who do you believe?

Well, I have to believe what the majority of the world says is right. How many countries have signed up now?

196. The two countries that did not sign in the beginning were Nicaragua and Syria, for different reasons. They have finally signed up now. So, the US is the only country in the world that says it will not be on the list.

This is one of the best agreements in the world where all the 196 countries have come together to declare their commitment to decarbonise the world’s atmosphere. Thailand has committed herself to a 20 per cent reduction.

Trump happens to believe that if all countries are in, it must be bad for the United States – just like he did with TPP [Trans-Pacific Trade Pact]. If everybody signs in, it must be bad for the US. That’s how he reasons. 

So, when the rumours came out that he [Trump] was going to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement – and since the US had been instrumental in getting all countries to increase their ambition in this regard – John Kerry as the US Secretary of State then and President Obama to a lesser extent – had done an amazing job preparing the world for Paris. So, there was a role for the US to play.

I told myself that I could not let Trump get the US out of the Paris Agreement without my at least trying to convince him to stay in.

So I went to the White House. It was one of the more unpleasant experiences, may I say? But it was very clear that some of the people around him believed staying in was better, because the economic forces were already pointing to that direction. In fact, the majority of the people in the US, even Republicans, believe in the consequences of climate change. So, the majority wants to stay in the Paris Agreement.

But for some reason, Trump decided that he wanted the US to leave the agreement.

But you knew even before you went to see Trump that he was pulling out of the agreement. So why did you go?

I have a simple philosophy in life that if I believe in something, I must try to explore all the possibilities to convince someone about the merits of a good thing. I would have felt miserable if I hadn’t done anything to change his mind. That would have taken away the possibility of my being able to criticise him, too.

So I felt that, having been heavily involved in the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement, it was an obligation on my part [to try to convince Trump]. Unfortunately, it did not work.

So, what we saw was that as soon as Trump made the announcement to leave the Paris Agreement, we actually saw the whole US rallying behind the agreement. We then created a movement with 4,600 companies, states and cities – a movement that is called “We’re Still In”. Jerry Brown. Michael Bloomberg. These are the key faces of the movement. But we have since seen more companies sign up, more than we could have ever imagined. We witnessed a groundswell of support for a move to do even more than what we had committed ourselves to in Paris.

Therefore, although we may have lost the moral force of the United States in convincing other countries to increase their ambition, we certainly have created a movement in the US to move even faster. 

Trump said he would create more jobs through opening up coal mines again. That’s political blah blah. The reality is in the last 10 years or so, most coal mines are closing – and those that are still open are heavily automated because the economics of coal, now that there is shale gas, doesn’t make any sense anymore. The number of jobs being created in the green energy sector is 10 times bigger than the fossil sector now. So the economic forces have made a decision. 

Trump, in that sense, is a bit of an outlier. But it will take him four years to be able to leave the Paris Agreement because the way this was set up from the beginning was you can’t just get up and leave.

So, by the time, he [Trump] does have to make a decision whether the US will ultimately leave the Paris Agreement or not, I think in the end they might eventually decide to stay in.

He may not still be in office by then.

That’s another possibility. That will require a separate discussion.

You said it was an “unpleasant” encounter. How unpleasant was it?

Well, if you have two people who believe strongly in something very different, then the meeting normally isn’t very pleasant. It’s like a retailer who wants a lower price the moment that you want to increase the price. Those can’t be the best meetings, can they?